We Are Missing the Point of John Boehner’s Resignation

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      Thomas Fleming discusses the story of General Ludwig Beck’s resignation in protest in his book, The New Dealers’ War, FDR and the War Within World War II. His article on General Ridgway in MHQ, The Quarterly Journal of Military History, was the first to recognize his genius as a leader of men. .            

  I fear a great many people, including the editors of the Washington Post, do not understand the significance of Speaker of the House John Boehner’s resignation.  The Post, in a recent article by Karen Tumulty, grouped him with speakers who were “forced out.”  But no one forced Boehner to resign. The Tea Party extremists in his own Republican Party have not demanded his scalp. On the contrary, his unconfrontational style led them to assume they could commit almost any ruinous blunder, from alienating woman voters by defunding Planned Parenthood to shutting down the government, and he would accept their behavior because they had a majority of the votes.

     Boehner once described his Speaker’s job as “to look out over the horizon and make sure I know where we’re going.”  He obviously was appalled by what he saw over the political horizon if the Tea Party fanatics and their fellow extremists got their way. Some people, with different temperaments, might have chosen to fling furious denunciations, to virtually ignite a civil war within the Republican Party. Boehner saw that would only lead to another kind of ruin for the party to which he had devoted so many years of his life.  Resignation in Protest was a move that suited his self-effacing temperament – and held out at least the hope that it might shock some of the extremists into rethinking their reckless approach to politics.

        Resignation in protest is not an American tradition. It has seldom been invoked by leaders in this country. Perhaps the most noteworthy example was done so smoothly, most people did not recognize it.  Which was fine for the man who did the resigning -- Army Chief of Staff General Matthew Ridgway. In the mid- nineteen fifties, he announced he would not accept another term as chief of staff.  This was extraordinary in several ways. By that time Ridgway was the most famous soldier of his era. He had rescued South Korea from a Chinese Communist invasion that had left General Douglas MacArthur in a panicky daze.

     The one man to whom Ridgway wanted to send a message heard it loud and clear. President Dwight Eisenhower was reportedly infuriated by Ridgway’s decision. He knew exactly what it meant. Ridgway was telling him he was dangerously weakening the American Army by shifting too much money into the greedy hands of the U.S. Air Force. The army’s early performance in Vietnam would soon confirm Ridgway’s opinion. But he never said another word about it.  Ridgway was on the record in the one place that mattered to him – the minds and hearts of his fellow soldiers.

       In other nations, resignations in protest are still rare, but somewhat more common. Perhaps the most famous in the 20th century was the resignation of Colonel General Ludwig Beck, the German Army’s chief of staff as Adolf Hitler prepared to invade Poland and soon afterward, Russia. Beck did not think Germany could win the war, especially if the British and French – and quite probably the Americans, came into the game on the western front.

     Like Ridgway, Beck never went public with his disagreement. But he recognized Hitler as a monster of unparalleled evil and devoted the next five years to organizing a conspiracy to kill the Führer and extract Germany from his ruinous war. Alas, the bomb that was designed to eliminate Hitler in 1944 failed to do the job. When younger officers turned against the conspirators, Beck died by his own hand.

       Let us wish John Boehner a far happier fate.  He is obviously a man who cares deeply about his country. We can only hope that his party’s extremists discover the meaning of resignation in protest before it is too late.


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